The Fourth of July

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Frederick Douglass: “This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

On the Fourth of July, I ask you:

Should African-Americans celebrate this day? They were slaves when the Declaration of Independence was crafted. Should Native Americans celebrate this day? The white man obliterated them from their lands.

Or perhaps the right question to ask is: How should people of color celebrate American independence? The answer is varied and often, personal.

I am proud to have become an American citizen. I love this country.

But I also understand its brutal history of racism. I know that this day means many things to many people.

Here is Frederick Douglass on the “Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro:” http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/douglassjuly4.html

Pedal power? Art walk is better

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The New York Times published an interesting story today about bicycles in Amsterdam. In a city of 800,000 people, there are 880,000 bicycles. The Dutch have led the way in pedal power but as the story points out, and as I found out firsthand when I was there a couple of weeks ago, the bikes can make for chaos on the streets.

I almost got mowed down by one on Herengracht.

bikeI opted not to fight to find parking places for my bike. Not to fight for space with other cyclists on crowded streets. Instead, I walked.

And did things you cannot do on a bike. Like meander through the city’s Zuid district and soak in the annual sculpture show. I got off Tram 16 and walked south on Minervalaan, stopping at sculptures made by artists from all over the world. Among them: China’s Ai Wewei and Nigeria’s Sokari Douglas Camp. In all, there were 66 pieces on display under the summer sun.

Here’s what the official ArtZuid website says about the exhibit:

“In 2008, Cintha van Heeswijck took the initiative to draw greater attention to the urban expansion of the south of Amsterdam, known as the Plan-Zuid, designed by architect H.P. Berlage almost a hundred years ago. This world-class platform for sculpture adds a jewel to Amsterdam’s crown of leading cultural events.”

After my two-hour stroll, I agreed.

Read the New York Times bike story here: http://nyti.ms/10BPQcq

Which country is this?

Ezequeil Zeff (left) and Lautaro Rivas of Buenos Aires.
Ezequeil Zeff (left) and Lautaro Rivas of Buenos Aires.

I thought I was in Amsterdam until I sat down to dine at Kantjil & de Tijger on Spruistracht. On the menu was an Indonesian feast: Pangsit Goreng, Ajam Sereh Pedis and Oteh Oteh. I ordered a sampling of savory stuff. Hadn’t eaten since breakfast and had walked all over the canal city. I was hungry.

Just as I’d finished dinner, a couple of guys sat on the other end of my outdoor table. We struck up a conversation.

They were in search of beef. Naturally — they were from Argentina.

Ezequeil Zeff, 30, and Lautaro Rivas, 46, had been in Amsterdam for a week. They were software guys from Buenos Aires. They liked Amsterdam but the Dutch, they said, were lacking soul. The people here needed a lesson in life from the Latinos. They might have coffee shops here but no tango.

The two Argentines had tired of bland food and come upon this Indonesian place for a little fire in the belly. They wanted meat, like any good carnivorous Argentine. I was worried. I’d eaten at the Pampas-style steakhouses in Buenos Aires. They are the finest in the world. I was worried these two ravenous Argentinians would be more disappointed in the meat dishes here than a Japanese person at Benihana. But they liked it. Whew.

Oddly enough, the next night I strolled into an Argentinian restaurant quite by accident and continued my South American adventure right here in Holland. The empanadas were deelish. So were te jump prawns. Just that they looked at me the entire time that I ate them.

Hamlet’s Elsinore

Our first view was just five minutes after we got off the train from Copenhagen. There it was, in all its magnificent glory, though less ominous than I had imagined it perhaps because of this glorious day. There was hardly a cloud in the sky; the brisk breeze whipped my hair about my face as we walked toward the grand.

The royal Danish castle is actually called Kronberg but we know it all as Elsinore from Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, “Hamlet.”

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles…

My companion for the day, journalist Jacqui Banaszynski, and I walked up to the castle, crossed the moat and looked out to the sea that separates Denmark from Sweden. How cold it must be here in the middle of January, we thought. An equally chilly history accompanied us through our tour. We learned of a fire that ravaged the castle, an attack and capture by the Swedes, of Bubonic Plague halving the nearby town’s population.

We climbed to the top and stood awed by the majestic views of sea and sky. And then descended on the stairs thinking of the madness, rage, grief, revenge and moral corruption Shakespeare so eloquently gave us in his play.

We didn’t have time to stick around for the Hamlet tour. Instead we walked back to the town of Helsingor, where we stopped for a drink at an Italian cafe in one of the town’s main streets. From bard to beer, Jacqui announced.

A day well spent.

On this day, remember

The last day of a 12-month deployment in Iraq for the 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment of the Georgia Army National Guard's 48th Infantry Brigade. The long journey home started with an incredible thunderstorm over Baghdad.
The last day of a 12-month deployment in Iraq for the 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment of the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade. The long journey home started with an incredible thunderstorm over Baghdad.

Even at the height of Iraq and Afghanistan, the wars were but a rude blip in the minds of a majority of Americans. Our military is made up of those who volunteer their services. Most Americans are disconnected from the men and women who serve in uniform.

A smaller share of Americans serve in the Armed Forces now than at any other time in our history except for the period between the two world wars. Unless you have a loved one of friend in the military, unless you live by a military base, you probably don’t think much about the sacrifices of service members. Aside from the magnetic yellow ribbons that adorn cars, there’s not even many visible reminders that America has been at war for a dozen long years.

How many families are separated? How many children are growing up without daddies and mommies? How many lives are broken by wounds that cannot heal? How many lives, lost?

In 2010, on the 10th anniversary of the Afghanistan war, I traveled to Watertown, New York, to write a CNN story about a place I knew was constantly reminded. Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division, sits on the edge of Watertown. The division’s soldiers led the charge into Afghanistan and its many brigades and battalions have done multiple tours of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Watertown is also my husband’s hometown of sorts. He was born in nearby Carthage but as a boy, he lived in Watertown for nine years. I had been visiting the area for a number of years and knew very well that war’s toll was greater here than where I live in Atlanta.

Up there, in the North Country as the locals call it, war makes unwanted, life-arresting visits; crashes into homes and entire neighborhoods just as assuredly as a January blizzard. If you like, you can read my CNN story.

In Watertown and in military homes across America, war is a constant. Let us make it a constant in our homes  just for one day.

On Memorial Day.

Frida

This is the closest I will come to emulating Frida. Ha.
This is the closest I will come to emulating Frida. Ha.

If you live in the Atlanta area and have not seen the High Museum’s Frida & Diego exhibit yet, you are missing out. The show closes Sunday, so GO!

I became a fan of Frida Kahlo  after reading Hayden Herrera’s biography in 1983. Fan might be an understatement. I should say I became obsessed with Friday. I went to Mexico City and spent hours in the garden of the Blue House in Coyacan, where Frida and Diego lived for many years.

I’d seen most of the paintings on display at the High before, but I never tire of seeing Frida’s work. The exhibit also includes numerous photographs.

In her life, Frida, of course, was overshadowed in every sense of the word by Diego Rivera. He was larger than life — already established as one of Mexico’s finest painters and commissioned to paint his murals in important places. I am glad to see Frida take her place next to him in this exhibit. As an equal, if not more.

I’m living in twilight

phone“Oh, oh Telephone Line, give me some time, I’m living in twilight.”

That was Electric Light Orchestra singing a song about a man wishing his love would just pick up the phone. Back then, it was probably a phone that looked a lot like this one at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina.

I was so happy to see it, one among an entire row of them hanging on a wall. I didn’t really need to call the front desk but I did anyway. Just to pick up the shiny black hand-set and say: “Hello.”

I miss old-school telephones. I miss them at airports and in booths along the street. Sure, I use an iPhone. But I don’t enjoy chatting on end on a mobile device. I used to do that with a regular phone, one that was attached with its own umbilical cord to the earth.

To quote ELO again (what’s come over me?): “I just can’t believe … They’ve all faded out of view yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Doowop dooby doo doowop doowah doolang.

Eat your heart out, Travis Bickle

Meet Linda Randolph. Her resume is impressive.

Public health pediatrician. Graduated from Howard University College of Medicine and the School of Public Health in Berkeley, California. She is president and CEO of Developing Families Center, Inc., a non-profit in Washington D.C. that serves low-income women of child-bearing and child-rearing age and their families. She has been recognized for her sensitivity and commitment to the complex needs of poor women, especially those of color. She’s been doing this sort of work for years — three decades to be exact.

I had the privilege of sitting next to her at dinner one night last week at the America Healing conference, sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation. Randolph nibbled on a slice of prime rib and mashed potatoes. Somehow the conversation migrated from maternal outcomes to the day that Randolph will retire.

Linda Randolph and I had dinner together at a racial healing conference last week.
Linda Randolph and I had dinner together at a conference.

 

“What will you do?” I asked. “Will you stay in Washington?”

Randolph is a native of D.C.

I wasn’t expecting the answer I got.

“I’m going to move to New York and drive a taxi.”

Whoah. Seriously?

Randolph said there were few women who drove taxis in NYC. She wants another cabbie to glance her way and take a good look when she’s behind the wheel of a yellow cab.

And she’s gonna make sure it’s a taxi with manual transmission.

She loves to drive stick-shift. More than 40 years ago, when she was still young and impressionable, Randolph drove from New York to San Francisco with a friend. He was from Costa Rica and had never shifted gears. But never mind that. They took turns at the wheel: 4 hours each. They drove like the wind and made it to the Pacific in 3 and 1/2 days.

So that’s what Randolph looks forward to. Out performing badass cabbies in the city known for them. I guessed her cabbie days were fast approaching. But how long would she work as a driver? She’s 72 now. Didn’t she want a few years of rest and relaxation?

Well, she said, her mama lived to see 99.

“When she died, she didn’t have a wrinkle on her face.”

Here’s to you, Dr. Linda Randolph, full of life and and now a source of inspiration for me. Here’s to you and many good years as a taxi driver.


Catching up with Baby Noor

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I went to school with Noor (right) during my visit to Baghdad and had this photo taken with her and Hajar, her best friend, who lost the use of her legs in a mortar attack.

My friend Joe Duran just called me after many months. I’d last seen him in November in Istanbul. Now, he was calling from his native Mexico, where he’d gone on vacation and also to sort through boxes of old things he stored at his house there.

“Moni, guess what I found?” he said.

I have no idea what’s about to come next.

“You know when you asked me about the tapes of Baby Noor? The raw tapes are all here in a box,” he said, coughing from the dust he’d whipped up.

I’d called Joe back in January asking if he had access to the footage he shot of Noor, the infant with spina bifida who American soldiers helped save by shuttling her out of her home in Abu Ghraib and sending her to Atlanta for surgery. Without the operations, she would surely have died.

I was an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter embedded with the Georgia Army National Guard unit that came upon Noor during a routine raid. I wrote about her for the newspaper and several days later, Joe arrived with camera in hand to file a story for CNN.

Our friendship was sealed in the throes of war. When I reconnected with Noor’s family in Iraq earlier this year, I called Joe about the footage. Turns out most of it was in the CNN system and I didn’t need his tapes. But it was good to talk to him about the stories we did back then.

“I can’t believe it’s been seven years,” he said.

I can’t either.

Except that I saw Noor again a few weeks ago.

I was not prepared to see a little girl who could speak and read and write. A girl who fancied pretty dresses and demanded her hair be embellished with colorful clips. She had grown so much.

I returned to Iraq to find her and tell the story of how she was faring all these years later, long after everyone in America who had been involved had lost touch with her.

It was strange that Joe called me out of the blue on the day before the story published on CNN.com.

Here is the link to the story:

http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/03/world/baby-noor/index.html?hpt=hp_c1

Iraq. Now and then

I stand inside the Al Warda supermarket in Baghdad’s Kerrada neighborhood staring at boxes of dates, but my mind races back to another time.

I used to shop here in 2003, when I shared a room at the nearby Al Hamra Hotel with photographer Bita Honarvar. We were tired of eating the canned beans and rice the hotel served in the restaurant and opted instead for chick peas, lavash bread, yogurt, Turkish biscuits and Iranian sour cherry juice at Al Warda.

Al Warda is still the luxury it was in 2003.

Back then, Iraqis felt a sense of euphoria at the fall of Saddam Hussein.

I wandered around Baghdad, writing about how satellite dishes were sprouting faster than weeds do in Atlanta — after years of darkness, Iraqis now had access to the outside world. Ra’ed Hameed told me how he’d secretly bought a satellite dish on the black market in 1999 and kept it well hidden in his house, waiting for the day he could set it up, the day when television stations beamed in from other countries would no longer be banned. He was ready, he said, to watch “those racy German movies” he’d heard about.

There were a host of new newspapers. And political parties. And real hope that a free and strong Iraq could rise from the bloodshed.

But as the U.S. occupation began, life in Baghdad deteriorated. IED — improvised explosive device — became a part of the vocabulary. Iraqis started dying every month as did American men and women in uniform. A Sunni insurgency against the Americans raged and eventually, sectarian strife between Sunni and Shiite gave rise to fears of a bloody civil war.

I last went to Iraq in 2008, as a newspaper reporter embedded with a 3rd Infantry Division battalion. Five long years later, it was emotional for me to be back in Baghdad.

There is no Hamra Hotel anymore. It closed for good after a second bombing on a January afternoon in 2010.

Electricity is still scarce — on every street I can see the jumble of wiring that connect homes to private generators when the power goes out.

Parts of Baghdad look just as shabby as they were the last time I was here. Tired from the neglect and damage that decades of conflict bring. in Kerrada, near Warda, life seemed to be springing back with new shops, restaurants and even the landscaping of public places. I see crews hard at work putting in place fresh concrete in one of Baghdad’s squares made famous by Mohammed Ghani Hikmet’s sculpture, Kahramana and the Forty Thieves.

I watch Waleed make fresh samoon bread at Zeitoon Ovens. My friend Mohammed buys six loaves for $1 and we sit at a nearby tea shop with our syrupy Iraqi chai and hot, doughy bread. Life seems normal. Almost.

I visit the Mansour Hotel, where a suicide bomber penetrated layers of security and blew himself up in the lobby in 2007. It’s all shiny and new now. I see women in pancake makeup sipping tea with their friends and overweight businessmen in suits who remind me of Saddam’s thugs who spied on people at the Al Rasheed Hotel. I take the hotel elevators all the way up to the top for a spectacular view of Baghdad rising along the banks of the Tigris. I’d seen Baghdad from a Black Hawk but never feasted on the scenery like this.

From high up, everything seems so serene, so peaceful. I can’t see the garbage and the rubble. I can’t see the sadness and suffering.

Of course, no American soldiers are left here but relics of the years of occupation are hard to miss. The U.S. military left behind a few Humvees and armored personnel carriers that are now painted in white and blue. Concrete blast walls surround the International Zone and other places with high security. In some places, Iraqis have painted tem in cheerful colors. They were no more softer to look at, really. The myriad checkpoints around Baghdad are all manned by Iraqi police now. They are a bottleneck for traffic but necessary in a city where bombings are still common. Perhaps at a checkpoint or a Shiite market or eatery. Or in the central city, as was the case Thursday when four massive explosions rocked an area not far from the fortified Green Zone.

I don’t have to wear a flak jacket or helmet anymore but the truth is that at any moment, things could go pear-shaped. That’s a term I remember former Aussie special forces guys uttering at a hostile environment training I attended in 2005.

I hope not to use that phrase on this trip to Iraq.

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